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Eyewitness to History: USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor; William E. Ward, Jr., Seaman, U.S. Navy, WWII

Author: John Vick

Photo of William E. Ward, Jr. [far right] with some of his friends taken right around December 1, 1941. [Photo: the Ward family]

It is an extraordinary honor to be able to tell the story of another member of The Greatest Generation, Seaman William E. Ward, Jr. from the Brooklyn community in Covington County, Alabama. He had a front-row seat to the tragedy that unfolded that Sunday morning at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. William was among the lucky survivors but what he experienced that morning aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma [BB- 37], left scars and memories that lasted the rest of his life.

It began as a quiet, peaceful Sunday morning for Seaman William E. Ward, Jr. aboard the USS Oklahoma, moored at Pearl Harbor Naval Base on December 7, 1941. Having finished breakfast, he was walking toward the canteen when he stepped outside on the main deck for a breath of fresh air. As he looked over the harbor, he noted, “I saw what I thought to be a smoke bomb dropped in the vicinity of the Army air station. This was not proper as it was Sunday, but no thought of this came to my mind. Turning around to go back to the sleeping compartment…I had descended about one-half flight of stairs, when, the only time in my six years in the Navy, I heard profanity over a naval ship’s loudspeaker. The boatswain mate sounded the battle call on his pipe, not bugle, and said, ’All hands man your battle stations and this is no s–t.’ Then the lonesome bugle call to general quarters sounded over the ship.”

William Elias Ward, Jr. was born June 27, 1921 in the Brooklyn community in Covington County. His parents were William Elias and Hattie Mae Knowles Ward. William Jr. was the fourth of their 10 children. William Sr., or Bill as he was called, pastored several churches in the area and was a farmer. William Jr., or William as he was called, attended the small Mobley Creek school briefly, and several other Covington and Conecuh County schools before transferring to Pleasant Home School. He left there in 1940 and joined the Navy in July 1940. After basic training, he was assigned to the USS Oklahoma which was located in San Diego, California, in December 1940. That same month the Oklahoma was transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. William was two days shy of having been aboard the Oklahoma one year when the attack occurred.

William continued, “I was at my battle station….looking out the gun casement toward Honolulu…I saw planes coming in, one behind the other. The planes looked as if they would fly into the side of the ship. Then I saw the torpedoes as they were released. The planes shot up after the load was dropped and there, on the wings, were big, red, rising suns….When the first torpedo hit the ship right below me, the water came up to the passageway outside the casement where I was standing. The gun crew members had gathered and we stood gasping while we watched plane after plane coming in to launch their torpedoes…We stood there dumb-founded, not being able to perform our duties while torpedo after torpedo exploded into the side of the Oklahoma.”

USS Oklahoma [BB-37], capsized with her starboard side up after taking 8 torpedoes in the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941. Seaman William E. Ward, Jr. walked down the side of the ship into the water and swam to the USS Maryland [BB-46]. [Photo: US Naval History and Heritage Command

After an order was received to move below deck, William and the gun crew left the gun-mount and sought cover on the second deck below. Not long after that, the order was given to “abandon ship.” Chaos and confusion ensued as everyone in the compartment tried to exit through the one small hatch, one by one. The small escape hatch was in the center of a much larger hatch that had been “dogged down” [large hatches had multiple levers called “dogs” on the sides that could be tightened down, making the hatch water-tight]. To make a hatch water-tight during battle conditions, all large hatches between compartments were “dogged” down. A rubberized seal on the hatch provided a watertight seal when “dogged” down.

William quickly realized the need to open the larger hatch or they were not going to all get out. He recalled, “I do not know what made me….I threw off the dog bolts and with the help of two men, we threw the hatch open, permitting 10 men to escape at a time.”

Just as they got the hatch open, another torpedo hit the ship, causing the hatch to fall back on William, cutting his chin on the step. He later remarked, “That was the only time I was hurt during the whole war. By now, the ship was listing to port about 30 degrees….After this, one could walk down the side of the ship into the water. This is the way I abandoned the Oklahoma.”

The USS Maryland [BB-46] was moored inboard of the Oklahoma and was not damaged by the torpedoes. William Ward swam the short distance to the Maryland and climbed up the fender lines Fenders are large, rubber bumpers, hung with lines between ships to prevent them from rubbing together. William climbed the fender lines, hand over hand, and went aboard the Maryland.

The Oklahoma was moored at berth F-5 on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The USS Maryland was moored inboard of her. The Oklahoma was hit by about eight torpedoes during the attack and in less than 12 minutes, rolled over on her port side and capsized. Within a day, a civilian shipyard worker, Julio DeCastro, organized a group of civilian workers and managed to cut through the hull where they had heard tapping from the inside. In one of the true miracles of Pearl Harbor, they were able to rescue 32 sailors. Out of a complement of 864 sailors and Marines, about 429 officers and enlisted men were killed or missing and an additional 32 were wounded during the attack. In July 1942, salvage operations were begun and the Oklahoma was refloated in June 1943. About 400 bodies were recovered and buried in 52 graves marked as unknowns. After the war, 45 bodies were identified and the remainder reburied in 46 graves. In 2015, the DPAA [Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency] began exhuming the bodies and attempting identification through DNA. As of September 2021, 346 of the 394 bodies exhumed had been identified and buried under their names.

Seaman William Ward had managed to climb aboard the Maryland but she was still under air attack. When the attack was over around 9 AM, the call came out for the Oklahoma personnel to muster on the dock. Ward remembered, “The mustering of our crew members by division was disheartening, as we found many of our friends and shipmates missing. We left the Maryland discouraged, heartbroken and empty-handed to muster on the dock. The home we had known was no more…One section of the dock was covered with dead or dying men that had been burned beyond recognition. The charred bodies, with flesh falling off where they had been handled, were lying quietly. They must have been given sedatives to ease the pain as some were still living, for you could see them breathing.”

Back at home, the Ward family waited for news about William. In his book, “The Way it Was Back Then,” William’s brother Wiley Donald Ward recalled, “I was only six at that time but I can clearly remember Mama sitting up late at night listening to the news which had begun giving names of all the men from Alabama that had survived the attack. About 10 days later, the news listed William Ward as one of the survivors, but it was another week before Mama received a letter from him.”

William Ward, Jr. returned home on a two-week furlough in June 1942. Wiley still has photos taken of William and the family during that time. When William returned to Hawaii, he was assigned to the heavy cruiser, USS Chester [CA-27]. The Chester had already taken part in several battles in the Pacific when William reported aboard.

Seaman William E Ward’s second ship, the USS Chester [CA-27] in “Navy dazzle paint.” The Chester would be torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and suffer a collision with another Navy ship while Ward was aboard. [Photo:]

Although Ward remained on the Chester until the end of the war, one incident stood out in his recollections as told to his younger brother Richard after the war. The Chester had joined Task Force [TF] 62 in Noumea in September 1942. TF 62 was supporting Allied operations in the Solomon Islands. On October 20, while steaming just north of the New Hebrides Islands, Chester was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-176. The torpedo hit amidships on the starboard side, killing 11 and wounding 12. The ship went DIW [dead in the water] with damage to two of her four main engines and flooding in the firerooms. William Ward felt that he had escaped death a second time because the submarine did not continue firing on the helpless Chester. Either the sub had exhausted her torpedoes or was scared away by several U.S. destroyers in the area. William remembered, “We were a sitting duck. I guess the Lord was looking after us.”

After making temporary repairs to their engines and damaged hull, Chester steamed to Sydney, Australia for further repairs. On Christmas Day, she departed by way of the Panama Canal, to Norfolk Naval Shipyard for a complete overhaul.

After overhaul, Chester joined the Atlantic Fleet until she was reassigned to the Pacific Fleet in October 1943. After shore bombardment duties for several island invasions, Chester was sent to Iwo Jima for the U.S. invasion in February 1945. Just before the assault began, Chester collided with the amphibious force flagship, USS Estes [AGC-12]. Once again, William Ward was uninjured but his ship suffered severe damage. The ship was able to take out several Japanese gun emplacements despite having lost her starboard screw and number three gun-turret. She left for Pearl Harbor after a brief stop in Saipan for temporary repairs. Chester had to return to Mare Island Shipyard in California for an overhaul.

After the overhaul, Chester briefly took part in operations at Okinawa after the island was declared safe. After that, she worked with Task Force 95.3 off the Yangtze Delta in China before retiring to Saipan for replenishment. Chester was laying off Saipan on August 5-8 when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. In November, Chester transported U.S. troops from Guam to San Francisco, arriving on December 17, in time to celebrate the first peacetime Christmas in four years. William Ward was able to spend Christmas at home in Alabama. The Chester departed for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard where she was decommissioned in June 1946.

After his leave was up, William was assigned to a Navy tugboat out of New Orleans, Louisiana. He was discharged from the Navy late summer 1946. William E. Ward Jr. married Vivian Loften on August 8, 1946. They would have five children, Gayle, Dale, Anita, Gary and Craig.

William returned to Pleasant Home School and graduated in May 1947. During that time, he began farming and later, built poultry houses and raised broiler chickens. According to his children, William also worked as a carpenter, café owner and insurance salesman.

Seaman William E. Ward, US Navy, USS Oklahoma [BB-37] just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. [Photo: the Ward Family]

William entered Troy State College [now Troy University] in 1963. He left Troy in 1965 before getting a degree. It was during his time at Troy that he published his wartime memoirs aboard the USS Oklahoma, “The Japanese Attack of Pearl Harbor.” The author is grateful to William’s son, Gary Ward, for providing a copy of his dad’s book.

William E. Ward, Jr. died October 26, 2005. He was survived by his wife, Vivian; brothers, Wiley Ward [Elaine], Richard Ward [Mavis], Doyle Ward [Lil]; sisters, Lucy Ward Copeland, Bessie Ward [Pete] Riley; his children, Gayle Ward [Jack] Lunsford; Dale Ward Whatley; Anita Ward [Jim] Summers; Gary Ward [Judy] and Craig Ward [Wendy]; 13 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. Vivian died on September 2, 2010.

The funeral for William E. Ward, Jr. was held on October 29, 2005, at Mobley Creek Baptist Church and he was buried at Mobley Creek Cemetery. The church and cemetery are not far from the William E. Ward, Sr. homeplace.

The author is grateful for the help of William’s brothers, Wiley Donald Ward and Richard Ward. Three of William’s children provided information and photos: Gary Ward who first contacted the author and daughters Gayle Lunsford and Dale Whatley. They all recalled that William was greatly affected by the War. Most of the children had not heard about his service in the Navy until he published his book. One daughter recalled, “He gave his life for his country…it was a slow agony he faced the rest of his life. He became a very quiet man…who spoke little. He was good to us all…but kept his deep thoughts to himself…until he wrote the book.”

{Sources: Wikipedia, U.S. Naval Systems and Heritage Command; The Japanese Attack at Pearl Harbor by William E. Ward]

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